Southern Airways Express LLC has seen its passenger traffic climb since it began offering flights in Arkansas in early 2017.
“We have seen either record-setting passenger traffic or near record-setting passenger traffic,” said Keith Sisson, chief marketing officer for Southern, based in Hernando, Mississippi. “The response to the service has been beyond our expectations.”
Southern was awarded the federal Essential Air Service contracts to serve El Dorado, Hot Springs and Harrison after Seaport Airlines of Portland, Oregon, landed in bankruptcy in September 2016.
Air Choice One of St. Louis is the EAS provider for the Jonesboro Municipal Airport and has weekly nonstop flights to St. Louis Lambert International Airport (STL).
The EAS is the federal program that subsidizes smaller carriers so they can profitably offer a minimal level of scheduled air service to smaller communities.
In February, the U.S. Department of Transportation renewed Southern’s two-year contract to continue providing services in Arkansas. The contract for the Arkansas cities, which went into effect March 1, is worth $15.9 million.
Sisson said one reason for the passenger growth is Southern’s reliable service. It has had to cancel very few flights.
“In the three markets that we serve … we are 99.4% of completion on all of our flights for the past 10 months,” he said. “I don’t know if there’s an EAS airline in the country that can say that.”
Starting May 2, Southern will offer six weekly nonstop round trips between South Arkansas Regional Airport in El Dorado and Memphis International (MEM). While adding Memphis, Southern will cut the number of nonstop round trips between El Dorado and Dallas/Fort Worth International (DFW) from 18 to 12 a week.
Sisson said Southern offered the Memphis connection as a convenience for passengers traveling east. “We’re able to open up the East Coast to El Dorado for the first time in a couple of years,” he said.
Southern also has service to Memphis through Harrison. Arrivals from El Dorado and Harrison will be almost simultaneous, and about 20 minutes later, Southern has another plane heading for Nashville.
“So we’re offering two Arkansas cities a one-stop service daily between their cities and Nashville, which we think is going to be very popular,” Sisson said. “There’s a lot of business and industry boom now in Nashville that we can take advantage of.”
Jonathan Estes, manager at South Arkansas Regional, has seen more passengers since Southern began offering flights. In the first quarter of 2019, Estes said, passenger totals are up about 5% from the same quarter in 2018.
But that trend might not continue. “I do anticipate the passenger count to drop off whenever we start the Memphis flight simply because you have to rebuild a market,” he said. Nevertheless, passenger counts on the flights to Dallas should stay steady as business and leisure travelers can get there for $89 one-way, a figure that includes taxes. Parking is also free at the airports Southern serves in Arkansas.
The Boone County Regional Airport has reported an increase in passengers in 2018 for flights to Memphis and Dallas, to 5,300, up from 4,368 the previous year.
Judy McCutcheon, the airport manager, said the flights to Dallas are almost always full, while the midday flights to Memphis are typically 40% of capacity on the planes, which seat nine passengers.
She said Southern’s reliability is the reason more passengers are flying out of Harrison. “Southern came in here and they’ve never canceled flights, which is a huge plus,” she said.
Southern’s Sisson said the airline plans to rebid for the EAS contract for the three Arkansas cities when it expires at the end of February 2021.
Essential Air Service Communities in Arkansas
|Annual Contract Subsidy Rate*||Carrier||Hubs Served|
|El Dorado /Camden||$2,541,851||Southern Airways Express||DFW|
|Harrison||$2,668,665||Southern Airways Express||DFW, MEM|
|Hot Springs||$2,662,717||Southern Airways Express||DFW|
|Jonesboro||$2,040,947||Air Choice One||STL|
*For year starting March 1, 2019
Source: U.S. Department of Transportation